The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Disclosure: I liked Catherynne Valente’s new book Space Opera so much I gave it a blurb. And as you read the Big Idea below about the book came to be, you might understand why the book appealed so much to me.


Sometimes you plan a book. Carefully. Meticulously. You hone it, prune it, and shepherd it through the publication progress with all the gentleness you’d give to a particularly shy child.

And sometimes a book comes to you. And the book says: I’m happening. Deal with it. I’m happening right now. Just…hold on to something.

Space Opera, you may not be surprised to learn, was the second kind of book.

It’s a ridiculous book. I’m not even going to pretend it isn’t. I never had any intention of writing it. I was quite happily busy with other projects.

The trouble, in the end, always comes down to love. When I love something too much, it inevitably gets me into trouble.

In this case, what I loved was Eurovision.

I have spent a long time already in the trenches, explaining Eurovision to Americans. And now, I suspect, I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. Here’s the short version: the Eurovision Song Contest is a combination of The Voice, Miss Universe, and WWI. Every year, countries in Europe, and these days, several that are decidedly not in Europe, send a pop singer or group to compete in a musical extravaganza for which the costumes are unspeakably glittery, the special effects tend toward gouts of flame, and the prize is really very little but the right to host the contest next year, and if one is lucky, a middling summer hit.

It’s glorious.

Viewers can vote from home alongside a panel of judges, but the key element is that you can’t vote for your own country, so Eurovision ends up being a glam rock snapshot of the current European political situation in any given year, as alliances come together. The whole point of it in the first place was to unify Europe again after WWII. It’s a bright mirrorball of pop art, but it’s got darkness at its heart.

I love Eurovision. I genuinely believe it’s one of the best things humanity has ever accomplished, and no that’s not a joke. When else has our species ever looked around and thought: we’ve just annihilated each other for a decade. The whole continent is a smoking ruin.You wanna…sing it out?

So two years ago, I was livetweeting it, as you do when you just get so excited at the mere thought of an event that has a bigger global audience than the Super Bowl but no one in your own country knows or cares about it. And one of my Twitter followers joked that hey, I love this weird, bright, dumb, showy thing so much, I should write an SFF version of it.

Do not dare me to do things on Twitter when I am in the middle of a Eurovision drinking contest. I simply cannot be held responsible for my actions in such a situation. Especially when an editor slides into my DMs and offers to buy that book right now.

My agent refers to it as the fastest deal in publishing. It was done and I was committed before I could catch a breath. As I was signing the contract, my fiance asked: “Does it really just say ‘Eurovision in space’? Do you actually have any idea how you’re gonna pull that off?”

“Yes, it does,” I said. “And no, I don’t.”

And I didn’t. Part of me was terrified. How the hell do you even begin to write that? I mean, you can’t play it straight. It’s too absurd. It’s obviously a comedy. Ah, but if you try to write science fiction comedy, the ghost of Douglas Adams appears and asks you with a stern expression if that’s really necessary. And even if it was a comedy, the core of Eurovision is that political darkness and artistic light. You can’t play it totally camp, either. And given the politics all around me, I wasn’t sure I was actually up to singing it out just this minute. What had I agreed to?

But the deadline approached. And I sat down at a blank screen. I laughed nervously.

And then I stopped trying to worry about whether I could do this thing at all and wrote some shit about Enrico Fermi and I was off, and off at breakneck speed.

And that’s how Decibel Jones came to be.

Fast forward just a bit into our future, and Earth finally gets the alien invasion we always dreamed of. It didn’t go exactly as planned. It’s not about gunships and stern admirals and grim battles. There don’t seem to be any admirals at all. But there’s a whole teeming galaxy out there, and they’re extremely suspicious of us. They tore themselves to pieces a centruy ago during the Sentience Wars, and are thus very careful about newly-discovered species. They simply can’t afford any more monsters out there. And humans do have such monstrous habits. We’re a borderline case—we may be sentient, but given our behavior on our own planet recently and historically, we may simply be a particularly unpleasant invasive species.

Fortunately, they’ve got a way to sort this out. Mankind must compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a contest of song and dance in which every sentient civilization performs its most staggering acts of punk rock beauty. All humanity has to do is not come in last, and we’ll be welcomed into the greater interstellar society with open arms.

If not, we’ll be quasi-painlessly exterminated, and Earth is welcome to try again in another million years with dolphins or something, no questions asked.

The trouble is, humans really are rubbish at music, comparatively. It’s embarrassing, honestly. They drew up a list of musicians they thought might have an outside chance at appealing to the finer sensibilities of non-primate cultures, but unfortunately, the Keshet, a race of time traveling red pandas in charge of intelligence gathering, fudged their landing a bit and everyone on the list is tragically dead. Except for one. Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, an early 2020s British glam-trash rock trio headed by a multi-ethnic genderfluid former glitter messiah who only ever managed one hit album when they were at the top of their game. But these days they’re aging into their 40s, a heap of bitterness, a lot of cheap wine and divorces, and particularly humiliating birthday party performances.

And now, they’re going to have to save the planet.

Space Opera is a headlong dive into a wormhole of music and idiocy and human failings and inhuman intelligences and a whole mess of awful costuming choices. It’s a comedy with a molten core of hardcore XXX feelings. And it’s got blue space flamingoes in it.

It’s as unlike what I usually write as it’s possible to get, and I’m so proud of it. I tried so hard with this book, you guys. I tried so hard to make it good enough for you. To pour my bitter, glittery, aging into my 40s on wine and divorces, dumb, hopeful, innocent, needy heart into a wormhole so it can fall out into your living rooms. To make you feel for a page the way Eurovision and Hitchhiker’s Guide and David Bowie and Prince and life on this stupid, terrible, gorgeous planet makes me feel. Even if it’s just one page.

Even if it’s just one paragraph.

So go on. Give my little tune a listen. Put the record on. Side one, track one. 3…2…1…


Space Opera: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

37 Comments on “The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente”

  1. OK, I’m in. For crying out loud, if the book is half as entertaining as that write-up, then it’s a winner :-)

  2. I read the first line of the book on Amazon and hit the Buy Now button with great enthusiasm. This will be my weekend I suspect.

  3. I’m European and I never liked Eurovision. However, I love Catherynne M. Valente’s books. When a good friend of mine told me this is “Eurovision in space!” I thought this would be a fun, wild ride. The book is now in my “to read” pile (in fact, it’s on top, waiting for me to finish my current reading).

  4. As a Brit who has enthusiastically supported Britain getting ‘nul points’ (Yes, it’s happened! Now you know why we decided to leave the EU… ;) ), I am absolutely sold on this. It sounds *brilliant*.

  5. This book was already on my “to read” list. After reading its description, I moved it from that list to my “drop everything else as soon as it hits the library hold shelf” list. And after I’ve finished reading it, I want to see Edgar Wright’s film version; may have to invent a time machine to take me several years into the future for that one. Seriously, SPACE OPERA looks like it’s going to be a hoot.

  6. I got to read some excerpts of this on Catherynne Valente’s Patreon (which, by the way, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever) and I can’t wait to get my hands on the whole thing at her signing! This post just makes me want to read it even more…

  7. It’s funny, I usually just skim over the guest blogs on here, but something about this one (perhaps the glitter ball on the cover of the novel?) inspired me to read…

    Order for this book placed on Amazon. Looking forward to reading this!

  8. I’ve seen some bits and pieces of the Eurovision contest, usually when the winner(s) are unexpected, from somewhere odd, or otherwise more newsworthy to the US news retards. I am not crazy about pop sensations, like Moon-Walking Michael jackson, etc. But I do love music, have tix for several shows coming up soon from local small town Symphony Orchestra to Old Crows and Govt Mule. Saw ZZ Top last time they were in town, wow they still cook it on down!

    And I love Space Opera SF, so will almost certainly take a swing at this.

  9. This sounds great! Incidentally, Ireland won Eurovision SEVEN times, more than any other country! I’m sure we’d win it in space too, but not the Eurovision Drinking Contest, since everybody knows there’s no alcohol in Ireland…

  10. I am both fascinated and terrified of this book, and that kind of excitement doesn’t come along often. This just might be the event of the decade. Will definitely be wide-eyed reading this!

  11. I’ve been seeing the name and cover of this book for a few weeks and wondered about it.

    I got about half way through the write-up and went over to Amazon to order it, going by the write up, having spent many years half watching Eurovision (usually for the late but most certainly Great Terry Wogan and to see how bad/funny our act was compared to our geographical neighbours), and love of science fiction of all kinds I suspect I’m going to enjoy it.

  12. just bought this, thank you..

    Abba won Eurovision with ‘Waterloo’, 1974.. it was glorious. One of the first things I remember seeing on TV in South Africa, after TV was allowed into the country in 1975..

  13. Just read the excerpt on Amazon – oh, yes, I’m buying this – and the first coherent thought when I finished was, OMG, Cat, what drugs were you taking and can you pass them around?

  14. Eurovision is famous in Europe, but bizarrely seems to have left very little impression on the U.S.: few if any of its famous names have made it big over here. Looking over a list of events, I find two notable exceptions to this: first, that ABBA won the Eurovision song contest in 1974, and second, the local-color intermission entertainment at the 1994 contest in Dublin was the original incarnation of Riverdance, which made such an impression that they expanded it into a full show.


    This year I am going to work out a way to get the UK stream, because the US commentators drive me right around the bend. The commentary amongst my friends and I is a thing of joy; my spouse’s friends make sneering noises, I sweetly invite them to go away and boil their heads, and there is delighted shouting over Romania’s yodeling. It is seriously one of the high points of my year, and I am thrilled that you’ve basically thrown the whole thing into space and made it work.

  16. I am really fond of CV’s work, and will almost certainly get this, but the scenario seems vaguely unfair to me (perhaps because I am an evolved primate). The notion that artistic skill = moral standing doesn’t really work: plenty of perfectly decent people can’t carry a tune in a bucket on a skateboard chained to a truck [1], while some great artists have been horrible people. (And shouldn’t we get some sort of do-over if the research team screwed up?) Or am I misunderstanding, and the point is not proving humans _worthy_, but making them _popular_ enough or _valuable_ enough that the aliens won’t vote to exterminate them even if we are a touch on the genocidal side?

    [1] Paraphrasing someone whose name I don’t recall

  17. The disco ball on the cover was already tempting me, and then I read the writeup…

    Sounds like a lot of fun.

  18. I’ve never watched Eurovision, but the reviews were so glowing that I preordered. No regrets, two chapters in.

    I also feel a lot like I did when watching Kill La Kill: This is funny. Also, it’s obviously referencing things I don’t know well, and I’m sure it would be twice as funny if I could identify more of the references.

  19. This description makes me think of some sort of bizarre mash-up of Mass Effect and the Rick and Morty episode “Get Schwifty,” which sounds right up my alley. I’m going to order this one at my Friendly Local Book Store this weekend!

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